As development becomes a fad, gigantic Himalayan tragedies rock and destabilise the Indian economy. The 15.9 per cent wholesale inflation, Sensex crash by 2931 points in a week, rupee below 78 to the US dollar, prolonged heatwave, low wheat yield, millions of trees being felled and blasts for building roads are a connected saga. The recent washout of Assam’s New Haflong railway station is a testimony to the magnitude of nature's fury and a tell-tale pointer to India’s future.
Affecting the fragile Himalayas is stated to be the reason for most calamities, the severe heating up of the Indian subcontinent and our economic woes too. An Indo-US monsoon study linked changes in the Himalayas to formation of cyclones up to South Africa. About 10,000 Himalayan glaciers are receding at a rate of 30 to 60 metres (100 to 200 feet) per decade, as temperatures rise with road and dam constructions. Around 10.76 million trees were felled between 2015 and 2018 for development, as per a Rajya Sabha answer. The Supreme Court for now has stayed the chopping of 11,000 trees in Dehradun.
The nation has learnt little from the June 2013 Kedarnath tragedy that wiped out a large chunk of the Himalayas, considered the soul of God – Devtatma – killing 6000.
Arunachal’s largest Dibang dam will claim 2.7 lakh more trees. The New Haflong washout would not have happened but for the false desire for creating a single-gauge all over. The British-era metre gauge track, created for a purpose on the fragile patches and now being preserved for heritage purposes, has its old Lower Haflong station intact. The mudslide from nearby hills loosened by blasts engulfed the station, marooning a number of trains, putting about 2,500 people at great risk, causing at least five deaths, and blocked a tunnel and links to Tripura-Mizoram-Manipur.
It is fashionable to discuss Uttarakhand, but the North-East is becoming worse, losing about 1.45 million hectares (mha) of tree cover between 2001 and 2020, amounting to roughly 76 per cent of the country’s total tree cover loss, according to a global study by the University of Maryland's Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) laboratory released by the Global Forest Watch (GFW). It says, India as a whole, lost 1.93 mha of tree cover in 2001-20, including Uttarakhand’s 50,000 hectares.
Assam has the highest share of the national tree cover loss, 14 per cent. From 2001 to 2020, the state lost 269 kilohectare (kha) of tree cover - 9.8 per cent decrease. Among other Northeast states, Mizoram lost 247 kha, Nagaland 225 kha, Arunachal Pradesh 222 kha, Manipur 196kha, Meghalaya 195 kha and Tripura lost 102 kha tree cover in 20 years, the report said. The top five states in the list with the maximum tree cover loss are in the N-E. The seven sister states are also among the 10 worst performers in terms of tree cover loss.
Arunachal Pradesh, with 169 proposed hydropower projects, is in the throes of protests against construction of mega dams over the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The All Assam Students’ Union, which pleaded for a dam on Subansiri in 1985, now opposes it. The protests intensified after June 2008, when excess water was released from the Ranganadi dam, the first in Arunachal, without prior warning to downstream communities. Massive floods submerged large swathes of land, killing at least 10 people and affecting around three lakh.
The “No-More-Dam” movement is popular in Arunachal but the resistance is weak. So now comes the world’s largest concrete gravity Dibang dam with 2880 MW capacity in a fragile region. It would lead to clearing 1,165 hectares of rare, traditionally protected biodiversity forest, home to the Idu Mishmi tribe. Hundreds of families in 39 villages of Dibang valley will be displaced. Also, dam sites are likely to experience sudden glacier meltdowns.
The pattern is almost a repeat at the Kedarnath restoration at the insistence of former Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat. Dr D P Dobhal, a senior glaciologist at the National Institute of Mountaineering, says that the suggestions in their report, in accordance with higher Himalayan geology, were ignored in the new construction.
The Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) in December, 2014 filed an affidavit driven by “pain, anguish and outrage” demanding stoppage of work at seven Uttarakhand hydropower projects, including Tapovan Vishnugad. Seven years later in 2021, it filed another saying consensus was reached with the power and Jal Shakti ministries, and the Uttarakhand government, to continue work on these projects. And in February 2021, Tapovan experienced a flash flood, killing 200 in Chamoli.
After a study, 53 scientists from JNU and IIT Indore found in June 2021 that the flood was caused by falling debris and rocks 20 metre in diameter blocking the Nanda Devi glacier, leading to 27 million cubic metres of water and debris barrelling down the Ronti Gad, Rishiganga and Dhauliganga river valleys rising 220 metres above the valley flow. This trapped workers and engineers at Tapovan. The rivers are attractive for hydropower projects but little was learnt from the Vishnuprayag debacle of 2013.
Floods, landslides, and forest fires are becoming frequent in the Himalayas as reckless road, rail and dam constructions, tree felling, blasting and tunnelling in the fragile hills make continuous landslides or loose rock-falls a regular affair. A Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) study has found that 51 per cent of Uttarakhand is “high” and “very high” landslide-prone. Local aspirations and large amounts of money often lead to undesirable ends.
The recent spate of activities on the higher Himalayas for creating road-railways to Karnaprayag, and comfort zones for tourism, are adding to the problems. Today, most dams have only one-third the capacity of the power generation these were ostensibly built for but during rains the overflows drown the people in woes. Nothing explains the rationale of such projects and why it is now being repeated in the North-East.
Another side effect of the projects is hundreds of kilometres of embankment constructions, following apprehension of calamities. The cost of these adds up to a stupendous expose of human folly. The National Disaster Management Authority has warned that the policy must check on construction for protecting the Himalayas. It is key to boosting the sagging Indian economy, be it the stocks, commodities or manufacturing.
(The writer is a veteran journalist, an observer of the socio-politico economy, and a media academician)